Saving an Indigenous Way of Life
Posted January 16, 2018 6:16 p.m. EST
MANIWAKI, Quebec — When Algonquin chef Cezin Nottaway was 5 years old, her mother taught her how to kill and skin a beaver with her bare hands. The little girl also learned how to snare a rabbit and to draw a moose out of the forest by emulating its haunting grunt.
“We were using local ingredients long before it became fashionable,” Nottaway, 38, said in her log-cabin kitchen on the Kitigan Zibi reserve, near this town about 85 miles north of Ottawa, Ontario.
Here, she prepares dishes like smoked roast moose with tea and onions for weddings, wakes and charity events. Her company, Wawatay Catering, has fed elementary school students, a group of judges and even former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark.
Nottaway, who took her company’s name from the Algonquin word for northern lights, is part of a new generation of Canadian chefs who are reclaiming and popularizing indigenous foods as part of a growing culinary affirmation of identity.
“Embracing this cuisine is a form of taking back what is ours,” she said.
That renewed interest comes at a time when Canada is trying to reconcile with its troubled colonial past. Among other abuses, government and church authorities deprived indigenous children of their native dishes at the “residential schools” that were created to assimilate them. The government also restricted access to food in order to clear people from land so it could be developed.
In September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the nation’s past “humiliation, neglect and abuse” of indigenous people, and vowed at the United Nations to improve the lives of the country’s 1.4 million indigenous citizens. The effort, however belated, has accompanied a renewed appreciation of indigenous culture, including a rich food tradition that stretches back centuries.
That tradition is resurfacing all over. Starting this summer, Rich Francis, an indigenous chef who finished in third place on “Top Chef Canada” in 2014, will host “Red Chef Revival,” a new series on YouTube that will explore, among other subjects, the roots of indigenous cooking.
There are indigenous food trucks in British Columbia, cooking courses in Ottawa and new restaurants and cafes in Toronto, including Ku-kum Kitchen and NishDish, which serves plates like dandelion-cranberry salad. Nottaway served smoked char chowder to a crowd of thousands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa during Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations last year.
“Because of the political reconciliation, there is a culinary reconciliation and renaissance,” Quebec chef Jean Paul Grappe said.
At 75, this eminence grise of Canadian cooking, an early champion of indigenous cuisine, is traveling around the province teaching young chefs reared in the age of Twitter how to use the techniques of their ancestors — such as covering a partridge in clay and simmering it for eight hours on top of hot stones in the ground.
Nottaway, who also goes by her French-Canadian name, Marie-Cecile, is a member of the Algonquin nation, one of the 11 indigenous groups in Quebec whose people lived here long before European settlers arrived in the 17th century.
After decades in which these communities have grappled with discrimination, poverty, gambling, suicide and alcoholism, Nottaway sees her embrace of traditional cooking techniques as nothing less than “decolonizing myself.”
“This is the food I grew up on,” she said. “They took away our land, our culture, our language, and I am fighting to bring it back with my food.”
The charismatic chef, who speaks three languages (English, French and Algonquin), juggles her catering business with raising her two children, and is as at home with a shotgun as with a skillet. Her interest in traditional cooking took root when she was a teenager, eschewing trips to McDonald’s in favor of learning Algonquin recipes, passed on orally from her grandmothers.
Both her parents had been forcibly sent to residential schools, where, she said, a priest who taught at her father’s school told him to use a metal brush to scrub the brown from his hands, until they bled. To ensure she didn’t lose touch with the land, her grandmothers taught her how to smoke moose meat with rotted wood, and how to kill a rabbit for dinner by pressing an index finger on its heart.
“My grandmothers taught me from a young age that I shouldn’t feel sorry for killing animals, since they suffer and are lonely if they are not hunted,” she said as she doled out a stewed rabbit’s head served with wild garlic to three guests. “We respect animals and pray to the animal spirits to show our thanks.”
Nottaway said her interest in reviving indigenous food was also part of a wider national effort to improve nutrition in those communities, where, she noted, the removal of people from their land has contributed to poorer health conditions, sedentary lifestyles and the proliferation of processed and junk food.
Yet even as indigenous cooking is now being celebrated in some quarters, it is drawing criticism from animal rights advocates, who complain that serving the meat of hunted animals breaches Canadian food safety rules prohibiting that in most restaurants.
In 2014, the Quebec government proposed a temporary exception to the law that would allow 10 celebrated restaurants, including Au Pied de Cochon and Joe Beef in Montreal, to serve game that had been killed by licensed hunters. But the plan foundered. (In Quebec, indigenous people are allowed to hunt and serve game on reserves.)
Protesters have organized petition drives against some indigenous restaurants, including the newly popular Ku-kum Kitchen, which offers seared seal loin and seal tartare. (Serving seal meat is allowed by law, and Ku-kum is supplied by SeaDNA, a seal meat producer, which Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans allows to harvest an annual quota of seal “for meat and oil.”) Late last year a petition calling on Ku-kum to remove seal from its menu gathered more than 6,500 signatures. “The seal slaughters are very violent, cruel, horrific, traumatizing and unnecessary,” the petition said, adding that the seal meat came from a “commercial company” and “had nothing to do with the indigenous hunt.”
But a counterpetition asked why that restaurant was being singled out when so many other Toronto restaurants served meat.
“It’s time to stop the cycle of willfully ignorant Canadians who continue to impose their ill-considered values upon indigenous practices and people,” said the counterpetition, written by Aylan Couchie, a Toronto artist, who is an Anishinaabe from the Nipissing First Nation.
Nottaway contends that hunting is part of her identity, and that the meat she hunts and butchers for her customers is the same she lovingly serves to her own family.
“This food is who I am and there is no reason I shouldn’t serve it, even if that means breaking the law,” she said with indignation, noting that mass-produced meat is often treated with additives and chemicals.
Still, an even bigger challenge looms for indigenous cooks: identifying and preserving their cuisine.
George Lenser, a chef in Montreal who cooked at Joe Beef and is a member of the Nisga’a Nation in northern British Columbia, pointed out that indigenous ingredients like wild berries and traditions like hunting game have long been relabeled “Canadian” or “Québécois.”
“If you use local ingredients, you are bound to be appropriating indigenous cuisine but may not realize it because it is so absorbed by Canadian culture,” said Lenser, 27.
He and other chefs and scholars are on a mission to excavate and codify recipes and ingredients that disappeared when their ancestors were forcibly assimilated. “When our grandparents and parents were forced to go to residential schools and torn away from their families, that knowledge was lost,” he said, noting that he had spent hours badgering his elderly aunts to share their old recipes and secrets, including how to make oolichan grease, or fermented smoked fish fat, which he uses to flavor soups or sauces.
Nottaway considers cooking her best weapon against assimilation, and on a recent Thursday afternoon, she set out to hunt for deer, partridge and beaver in a snow-covered forest on the reservation.
It was well below zero. But Nottaway, dressed in traditional deerskin mukluks and holding her gun, was undeterred as she examined paw tracks and urine in the snow, sniffing out whether a deer was lurking nearby.
When her prey proved elusive, she returned home and pulled a moose carcass out of the freezer instead. Before long, there was a feast spread on the table, including thin tranches of smoked moose, roasted and seared with maple syrup, made from the sap of a nearby tree.
“It doesn’t get more Canadian than that,” she said with a grin.